Developing new sources of energy, communicating over long distances, mechanizing productionall these technological changes are central to world history, particularly since the late eighteenth century, just when the United States was becoming a nation. But no changes are so central as those involving transportation. Transportation always requires energy, whether it be "natural" in the form of animate muscle power or the power of the wind, water, steam, or internal combustion. Less than two hundred years ago, communication anywhere beyond sight or sound was totally dependent on transportationinformation could be sent only by transporting word of it physically. And, in the absence of ready transportation to distant markets, it would have made no sense to develop mechanical means of producing goods in large quantities.
Transportation technology has two components: there are conveyances designed for water, dry land, steel rails, or blue sky, and there is what we call infrastructure. For conveyances such as railroad trains, barges, and highway vehicles, infrastructure of some sort must exist wherever they go: tracks, locks and canals, roadways. For those that ply open waters, infrastructure is ordinarily confined to ports, where ships can negotiate safe channels and tie up at wharves. The "high seas" are themselves a highway. But to people without seagoing vessels, an ocean looks like a moat. Such was the case historically with the Bering Sea, which blocked the advance of nomads who had moved across northern Asia into Siberia. Then, from about 40,000 years ago until 10,000, they were able to cross over to North America because much of the North Pacific Ocean had frozen into sheets of ice and the water level had receded to reveal a land bridge. By the time European explorers first sailed across the Atlantic in the fifteenth century, there were perhaps 20 million residents of the Americas whose ancestors had come overland. The peoples that Europeans first encountered knew that they occupied part of a vast continent. A few of them, as did a few Europeans, even understood that the earth is spherical, not flat; it has no "edge" as had long been surmised. Given the proper array of technological devices, starting with the compass (a Chinese invention), and a rig that could convert wind from any direction into forward motion, it would be possible, even if extremely difficult, to sail ever westward and end up where one started.
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The Spanish were the first Europeans to plant a permanent settlement in North America, at St. Augustine, in what is now Florida, in 1565. After the failure of several English ventures, the Virginia Company of London established a colony in 1607 in what is now Virginia, and in 1620 a 90-foot vessel called the Mayflower carried a group of men and women who called themselves Puritans to the shores of Massachusetts Bay. One of them recorded his joy after crossing "over ye vast and furious ocean" and being enabled "to set feet on ye firm and stable earth."1
The English crown later granted the new settlers a continental strip of land stretching nearly 1,000 miles from Chesapeake Bay northward to the Gulf of St. Lawrence. But except for passages afforded by rivers like the Hudson and the Delaware, this land was all but impenetrable because the entire eastern third of the continent was densely forested. Native American trails could accommodate riders on horseback and pack animals, but not the sort of wheeled vehicles used in many other parts of the world. For more than 200 years after the first European settlers braved the Atlantic crossing, America's rivers and coastal waterways such as Long Island Sound remained the prime avenues of domestic travel and transport. For travel and transport to and from distant shores there were many Atlantic harbors, from Boston and Salem to Charleston and Savannah. On the Pacific, Spanish lands, good harbors were scarce, but there was one that seemed magnificent. In 1776 a priest who accompanied the expedition charged with founding a California mission honoring St. Francis wrote that "the port of San Francisco is a marvel of nature, and might well be called the harbor of harbors." Before long, Americans would be boasting of a "manifest destiny to overspread the continent," and in 1848 California would be captured for the United States, along with 1.2 million square miles of western territory having only rudimentary avenues of travel and transport. San Francisco was already a busy portal to the Far East. Now, it would also be seen as the obvious destination for a transcontinental railroad that would "redeem a wilderness."2
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The British had sought to dominate the economic interests of the American colonies by enforcing a doctrine known as mercantilism. The colonists were obliged to ship raw materials to England in exchange for processed and manufactured goods. But certain American industries were tolerated and eventually encouraged, foremost being shipbuilding. By the time of the Revolution, tonnage built in North America accounted for a third of the British fleet. After Independence, Americans struggled to establish a right to engage in international trade in a fiercely competitive world. Excluded from familiar commerce, merchants were impelled into a search for new markets, notably China, whose prime export was tea. New York and New England tea fortunes provided capital for many of the nation's early ventures in overland transportation.
Competitive advantage in foreign trade was intimately linked to speed, and on the Atlantic this led to experiments with steam power as early as 1818 and finally its success during the 1840s, notably with the ships operated by Edward K. Collins between New York and Liverpool. Collins "liners" cut the time for a transatlantic passage, which could take weeks under sail, to a matter of days.3 An even more dramatic story played out on the Pacific, where distances were too great to carry sufficient fuel for steam engines. For the Pacific and for coast-to-coast voyages around Cape Horn, ships were rigged for vast spreads of sail and called clippers (as were the fastest racehorses). Ordinary merchant ships often required eight months to make the 16,000-mile voyage from New York to San Francisco. A clipper called the Flying Cloud made it in 13 weeks, and, on the South Pacific, another clipper covered nearly 1,500 miles in only four days.
Never before had any kind of human conveyance been capable of going so far so fast. By the 1850s, however, there were too many clipper ships and too little business. The depression that began in 1857 amounted to a death knell for these "greyhounds of the sea"although they would remain (along with the sort of riverboats made famous by Mark Twain) in the American imagination forever.4
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Meantime, investment in transportation infrastructure would be turning increasingly to the interior of the continent. By early in the nineteenth century, there were rudimentary roads all along the coast, and one that reached from the port of Baltimore all the way into Indiana, called The National Road. But the mode of transport that seemed to offer most promise was the canal and canal boat. On an adjacent towpath, a horse or mule could pull a boat with a 25-ton load, far more than could be pulled in a wheeled vehicle even by a large team. And there were inviting sites for canals where a "short cut" beckonedacross the Delmarva Peninsula separating Chesapeake Bay (and Baltimore) and the Delaware River (and Philadelphia), for exampleand also for skirting rapids in rivers. But any extensive canal would inevitably involve changes in elevation, and that would mean constructing "locks" with gates that could be opened and closed, allowing water to be pumped in and out and thereby enabling vessels, literally, to climb mountains. By the 1840s there were canals in at least a dozen states, but by far the most ambitious was the Erie Canal connecting New York City and the Hudson River with Buffalo and the Great Lakes even as it gained 630 feet of altitude in 383 miles.5
Even though the Erie cost $7.9 million, an enormous sum for the time, tolls paid off this debt within ten years. But nearly every other canal project failed financially, perhaps most notably the Pennsylvania Main Line connecting Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, which had 174 locks. The Main Line never came close to paying off its construction coststhere were 174 locksthe reason being that a newly-emergent form of transportation proved much more economical. The Erie Canal was completed in 1824, the first North American railroad only a few years later, and its technological advantages were immediately evident: flanged iron wheels minimized friction and they would follow iron rails as they turned left or right, climbed or descended. Railroads were rarely fazed by wintertime ice, while a "season" on an inland waterway might be only eight months. Some rivers such as the Ohio had been "canalized" with the construction of lock chambers skirting rapids. While railroad lines did not always describe a beeline from point to point, few rivers even came close. On the Ohio, the distance from Pittsburgh to Cincinnati was 470 miles; via the railroad completed in 1853 it was 316.
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Conveyances with flanged wheels running on rails had a long history in connection with coal mining, but mobile steam power did not become feasible until the early nineteenth century, after it was proven with boats on the Hudson and Delaware and ultimately on the vast river system of the Mississippi Valley. By 1840 sixty different companies were operating more than 3,200 miles of railroad in North America, almost twice the mileage in all of Europe. The first transcontinental line was completed in 1869, by which time American railroads were becoming the richest and most complex business enterprise in the world. In 1907, the locomotive works founded by Matthias Baldwin in Philadelphia employed 18,500 workers and was the nation's fourth-largest industrial employer.6
The power and influence of the American railroads peaked at just about this time, as did their extent: 260,000 miles, in addition to which every city and town had a system of electric "street railroads" and there were more than 70,000 trolley cars in operation.7 In sum, railroad technology embraced tens of thousands of distinct inventions, major and minor. One of these is represented in the Franklin Institute's Case File on Howard L. Ingersoll, who was awarded the Edward Longstreth Medal in 1933 for a device called a "booster" that enabled the application of a locomotive's power not only to the large driving wheels but also to the "truck" under the firebox, in order to enhance the tractive effort when getting under way. Another was Catherine L. Gibbon, who was awarded the John Scott Legacy Medal for her patented "Improvement in Street Railway Construction," a novel form of track-work. But it was likewise in the early years of the twentieth century that a conveyance would come to the fore that required no tracks, automotive transport by means of vehicles propelled by compact gasoline engines operating on the principal of internal combustion (that is, heat was converted into energy inside the engine itself rather than in an external firebox, as with a steam engine).
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During the 1880s and 1890s, Americans enthusiastically embraced the freedom offered by mechanized, personalized transport, as they took to the new chain-driven "safety" bicycle by the millions. An organization called The League of American Wheelmen was founded with the aim of promoting improved roads for cyclists. But simultaneously the automobile, a European invention, was being transformed "from a luxury for the few to a convenience for the many," from which "flowed economic and social consequences of almost incalculable magnitude."8 The man most responsible for this transformationwho put the automobile within financial reach of ordinary peoplewas Henry Ford. Rather than the automobile itself, Ford invented the means of manufacturing autos cheaply by making sure each separate component was identical and everything could thus be put together on what was called an assembly line by workers who performed one simple task over and over. The first of Ford's Model Ts, in 1908, was priced at $850 and he sold 5,986 of them; in 1916, when they were priced at $350, he sold 600,000. By 1928, he had produced 15 million Ts and the automobile had indeed become "a convenience for the many." But Ford did not create the age of automobility single-handedly. Other inventors played a larger role in rendering autos more user-friendlyperhaps the most important being Charles F. Kettering of General Motors, who devised the means of getting the engine running with an electric "starter" rather than the hand crank required by Fords even into the 1930s.
After World War II, and particularly after the spread of the interstate highway system beginning in 1956, the transport of goods by means of highway vehicles rapidly exceeded transport by means of railroad cars, eventually by a vast margin. So did passenger travel, though in that realm one final innovation in transportation technology would eventually take a substantial number of travelers out of their own motorcars and put them into what were initially called "airliners" (the word being a variation on ocean liner, just as "airport" was a new take on an old maritime term).
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By the turn of the twentieth century, thousands of adventuresome balloonists had gone aloft, but human flight using conveyances that were "heavier than air" still remained as much a dream as it had been for Leonardo da Vinci, who envisioned a device he called an "ornithopter" in the early sixteenth century. That changed all at once on December 17, 1903, at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, when Orville Wright flew through the air under power for 120 feet; later that same day his older brother Wilbur stayed aloft for 59 seconds and covered 852 feet. Like all airplanes prior to the advent of turbojets, the Wright brothers' Flyer was designed with wings that would lift it into the air and a motorized propeller to power it forward. Later, another kind of flying machine was devised that was actually lifted by its propeller, rather than wings, and it was in the improvement of this so-called helicopter that Igor Sikorsky played a key role. Both types of aircraft now play a major role in commercial transport and travelthe one for longer distances, the other for shorterbut it needs to be added that research and development of both types was largely spurred by their potential utility in warfare.
The history of commercial flight largely recapitulates other histories that had already played out with different modes of transport and travel; with the government underwriting many of the costs, providing subsidies in various forms such as mail contracts, or funding infrastructure, as with airports and most notably with the interstate highway system. Although an earlier generation of American historians thought in terms of a discrete "transportation revolution," from our own perspective it seems more accurate to borrow Ruth Schwartz Cowan's expression, "transportation revolutions."9 Or perhaps "revolution without end." Today the news is full of stories about conveyances powered by magnetic levitation and about automated highways with vehicles steered by computers. Do we actually "need" such novelties? It is hard to say. Nobody thought that we needed automobiles or flying machines when they were first invented. Indeed, technological change is often inexplicable in terms of straightforward necessity. If it were, studying its history would not be nearly as much fun.10